I was just a few months into dating my now fiancé and we were returning from a day trip.
I was tired.
He was all of the sudden excited. “Oh! I want to take you some place!” he exclaimed.
“I’m pretty tired” I replied, struggling to find my clear “No thank you. Take me home please.”
It’s called the Warehouse Cafe though it’s much more warehouse than cafe.
Walking into this dive bar, so dark that it took more than a minute for our eyes to adjust from the afternoon light, I immediately felt awash in sadness. Not my own sadness, but the sadness of the people there. Hunched over the bar, nursing a drink that was far from their first of the day. They were sad. Not even outwardly sad, but emanating sadness nonetheless, and I could feel it.
It washed over me like a cloud of cigarette smoke and made it just as hard to breathe.
Returning with drinks for us Justin beamed with that ‘Isn’t this place cool!’ look in his eyes.
“I need to get out of here” I responded as tears welled up in my eyes and my breath got short.
Wandering out back amidst a crowd of rowdy bikers we found a place to sit and I started to cry.
Needless to say he was perplexed.
Why had walking into a bar—a bar he was excited to take me to—made me cry?
I tried to explain.“The people in there.” Wiping away tears. “They are so sad. I can feel it.”
Now he was annoyed. I seemed crazy to him and his mind flashed forward to what life might be like with me, unable to ever set foot in a cool dive bar, too sensitive to have any fun. Or so he feared.
Underneath it all he was disappointed. I had popped his balloon.
Nothing I could say in the moment helped me make sense to him.
He was annoyed and I was outraged.
How could he not understand?! How could his first reaction to my upset not be compassion?!
No one spoke on the drive home and when he pulled up in front my apartment I got out, slammed the door, and he sped off.
We’d had our first big fight.
In the years since then I’ve come to understand several important things about myself, sensitivity, and relationships.
First, I am a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) and I was born this way.
Just like dogs can pick up on sounds and smells that humans cannot detect, HSPs can pick up on a whole range of stimuli that non-HSPs are often oblivious to. This makes us powerful. This temperament is a form of intelligence. We’re also the target of messages that we’re weak and too sensitive. Not so. Being an HSP is an asset despite the fact that our dominant culture doesn’t see it that way.
In my masterclass Feast we spend an entire week focusing on high sensitivity because it’s such an important cornerstone in the journey to make peace with food. Often a student will tell me they are an “emotional eater” but what they describe is an overstimulated highly sensitive person using food to calm their nervous system. The more my students understand what it means to be an HSP, shake off any shame of their sensitivities, and take care of their unique needs, the faster the choppy waters of eating stills.
The three aspects of self-care for HSPs are prevention, mitigation, and recovery. Prevention looks like making choices to avoid or modify situations in advance that are overwhelming to our nervous systems. Mitigation looks like being in the middle of an overstimulating situation and doing what you can to make it better. Recovery looks like preparing for and acknowledging that after an overstimulating event our nervous systems are asking us to actively participate in self-soothing.
As an HSP our role in relationship is that of educator. It is our task to teach others about our temperament, our needs, and importantly, about the myths and stigma surrounding sensitivity. It’s just fact that most people aren’t yet familiar with the term or definition of HSP. It’s on us to teach them both directly through words and indirectly by role-modeling how we treat our own sensitivities.
Four years after that tearful trip, Justin has a deep understanding of my sensitivities and a respect for the gifts they bring. Yes, he has moments of frustration but they are minimal and assuaged by all he knows now.
Recently Feast students asked about dating as an HSP, afraid that they would always be perceived as “too much” by any suitor. Rather than speak for him I asked Justin to share a little bit of his experience and this is what he had to say:
What would you tell a guy friend who said he was dating a someone who is an HSP? What advice would you give him?
Learn to be patient. It’s easy to overwhelm an HSP, and you need to slow down and most of the time, lower your voice.
Sometimes what triggers Rachel doesn’t make sense to me, and you just need to understand that it’s her own experience, and you just need to accept and respect it.
What would you tell a single female friend who was trying to navigate finding a partner as an HSP? She feels ashamed and afraid any partner would find her sensitivity a burden. What would you tell her?
Be yourself, and be honest with your partners. Either they get it, or they don’t. Don’t hide those feelings just to spare yourself embarrassment.
What’s been the best thing about dating an HSP?
Letting me tap into my own sensitivities, and knowing that you (Rachel) understand me and can empathize, no matter how odd or off-kilter my feelings might seem.
What’s been the hardest?
Missing out on going out to clubs, loud bars, dancing, drinking. Crowded places are hard, places that most of the time I wouldn’t have a hard time with.
What do you see me (Rachel) doing in terms of my own HSP tendencies that make dating me easier?
I see you try hard and put up with things you might not have been comfortable with before, like sometimes putting yourself in crowded/loud social situations you might have avoided in the past.
What do you do to make dating me (Rachel), an HSP, easier?
Accept the fact that you’re special and that I should treat you unlike any other woman I’ve been with before in my life.
Relationships don’t come built straight out of the box. They come as a pile of incomplete pieces that you, with your combined strengths and challenges, work to put together and when you need a missing part you have to work as a team to find it. As an HSP a few things make it easier to assemble a truly great partnership:
- Learn about your unique temperament
- Exorcise any internalized shame you might have about being an HSP
- Develop your own personalized ways of preventing, mitigating, and recovering from overstimulation
- Respect your boundaries
- Assume the role of educator in relationships
Photo Credit: Rachelle Derouin
Before you read any further, head over to Facebook and follow Charlie Shipley’s The No-Diet Notebook where he shares the simplest hand drawn words in support of living a diet-free, body-loving life. They’re pure, bite-sized brilliance.
Here is this week’s entry from The No-Diet Notebook:
I shared this image with my current Feast cohort and one student replied: “I think having a fit body is an accomplishment. What am I getting wrong here?”
Her question is apropos given that the Olympics just kicked off and much of the world is celebrating the super-human feats of these athletes.
But is a fit body an accomplishment?
Let’s take a deeper look.
The first thing we need to do is separate out a fit body as defined by abilities (endurance, flexibility, strength, balance, etc.) and a fit body as defined by appearance standards.
The latter, a fit-appearing body, is not an accomplishment at all. There is nothing superior about a body that conforms to society’s narrow and incorrect standard of what a fit body looks like. Athletes of the highest caliber come in all forms. It’s a myth that you have to have a flat stomach or thighs that don’t touch or low body fat percentage.
At the height of my anorexia, strangers would openly comment on my body making it clear that they equated my thinness with health and fitness. “You must work out” they’d say when my reality was days spent in bed too weak to move from severe starvation.
My partner has a sturdy build, broad shoulders, and strong arms. He doesn’t lift weights ever. He’s of Polish descent and this is simply the body shape his genetics produce. Nevertheless, people make assumptions about him based on his appearance all the time.
Fit people come in all shapes and sizes. They have round bellies and thighs that touch. Strong people can come in bodies that look weak. Likewise, unfit people come in bodies that appear fit.
Bottom line: we simply cannot know from looking at someone if they are healthy or not and as such, appearing in a fit body is not an accomplishment.
Now if we’re talking about a fit body in terms of performance, it all depends on one’s personal values. It depends on personal values because physical fitness is not objectively (or universally) an accomplishment. It depends on what is important is to you and what your motivation is.
Personally, it’s not important to me that I can swim fast or lift large amounts of weight. It is important to me that I feel good in my body, am able to enjoy and live my life (go hiking, swim in the ocean, carry my groceries up my six floor walk up, etc). These are my values. Michael Phelps, Misty Copeland, and possibly the student who asked the question, have different values when it comes to fitness. That’s okay. It’s personal. If I don’t value these things I’m not less accomplished. I am likely accomplished in different ways.
Remember: all bodies are good bodies.
ALL BODIES ARE GOOD BODIES.
We rank bodies for sport in our culture, but we don’t need to and doing so is violent. It’s okay to opt out of the body comparison game, as it’s a game that ultimately hurts us all.
It’s also important to explore our motivations for pursuing fitness. As I tell my student WHAT we’re doing doesn’t matter so much as WHY we’re doing it. Whether leaving food on our plate or asking for a second helping, running a 5K, or napping on the couch–why are we doing it? Are we doing it because it feels good to us and brings us joy? Are we doing it because we feel like we’re not enough? Are we acting out of fear? Are we doing what we want or what we think you should do?
I strive to act from a “wholesome” why. To move in response to self-awareness, embodiment, kindness, self-compassion, sustainability, a personal desire to feel alive, connected, and of service.
We could be the fittest person in the world, but if we got there because being fit is a way to compensate for feeling like we’re not enough or to be accepted, loved, or approved of–I question the blanket awarding of the label “accomplished”.
We also need to be careful when using a word like “accomplished” as there is an implication that one who is not accomplished is lacking, failing, and unfinished or incomplete. We want our language to make room for celebrating individual success while not shaming those who define success differently.
A final note: there are real life circumstances that can impede traditional fitness pursuits or results. They include but are not limited to poverty, mental illness, physical illness, physical disability, and serving as a caretaker. Having the time and resources to devote to fitness is often a luxury and privilege.
So is a fit body an accomplishment?
No, unless it’s important to you, available to you, and supportive of you. And even then, you very well might not look like the picture of fitness and that’s just fine.
“There’s No Morality in Exercise: I’m a Fat Person and Made a Successful Fitness App”
Ragen Chastain of Dances with Fat (In particular this post and this post)
“Dear Virgie: ‘Why Does Exercising Feel So Complicated?'”
“How To Exercise Out Of Self-Love — Not Due To Fat-Shaming”
This week I had yet another client tell me that a certain diet (rhymes with Hate Talkers) is the only one that has “worked” for her. (See this: defining what “works”).
My client is telling me that this diet has “worked” but she is seeking my help with overconsumption and general dis-ease around food — two almost certain outcomes of said diet. Never mind the yo-yoing of her weight that she dislikes.
So I want to make something very explicit: food restriction (by any name, real or perceived) almost always leads to overconsumption (by any name, real or perceived). Buy one, get one free—like it or not.
Let’s take a minute and better define restriction and overconsumption:
Generally, in this context, restriction refers to reducing or eliminating food items or food groups from one’s diet. This can look as benign as “I’m trying to eat less sugar” all the way up through traditional diets and on to full blown orthorexia and anorexia.
The appeal of restriction is how it makes us feel—at first. We feel in control, powerful, safe, virtuous, and even high.
However because our brain interprets restriction (including often just the thought of restriction) as “famine is imminent” even the strongest will is often over run in pursuit of being fed. This is just our built in survival instinct.
Has this ever happened to you: You think “Today I shouldn’t/won’t eat X” and before you know it just the thought has sent you into eating twice as many of that food?
This is why whether restriction is real or perceived it’s equally potent.
We have a stereotype in our head of binge eating: on the floor in front of the refrigerator surrounded by empty packages of food, spoon deep in a carton of ice cream. Yet overconsumption most often appears in subtler ways that have more to do with what’s going on in our minds than what is going in our mouth. When I was anorexic I had an allotted amount of crackers I would eat each day. If I went over that number, I felt like I had binged, even if I was still calorically deficient. I used to say to my therapist that a binge for me was less about the food and more about the fact that while eating I was consumed by thoughts of the next thing I would eat. Again, I might still have been in a normal or deficient caloric range, but the experience in my mind had the fingerprint of overconsumption.
You probably know what overconsumption feels like to you and while it’s personal and often private the impact is fairly universal.
So what is the mental experience of overconsumption? At first, coming from restriction-ville, it’s release, calm, and a sense of safety as the brain registers that food is here and abundant. Typically this is followed by feeling out of control, ashamed, guilty, and “bad”.
Can you relate?
Without seeing the cause and effect of this cycle most people hop right back on the restriction bandwagon.
I implore you:
- Do not blame yourself for feeling out of control around food when you’ve been sold a cycle that all but guaranteed exhaustive circular trips from restriction to overconsumption and back again.
- Do not hop back on the restriction band wagon when you are or have been overconsuming. To so do would certainly cause you to repeat the same patterns over again. Diets by design (as a result of how they interact with the human psyche) include a trip through the land of over eating.
- Do not think that you can buy one (restriction/dieting) without getting the other for free (overconsumption).
- Do not suggest to anyone, ever, that a diet is the answer to their struggles.
I’m posting this image again so it’s crystal clear just how one feeds into the other:
GETTING OFF THE NOT-SO-MERRY GO ROUND
If you’re tired of going round and round…
If you’re tired of feeling like it’s your fault when a diet doesn’t “work”…
If you’re tired of how short lived the “perks” of dieting are…
Take the off ramp: intuitive eating.
It’s the only thing I know of that puts an end to the insanity and the off ramp exists at any point, no need to wait for another cycle.
Intuitive eating works with the human brain such that you never feel like famine is coming or that you, your body, or food can’t be trusted. Intuitive eating is sustainable and doesn’t require that you sign back up with a company selling you a guaranteed to fail product.
To start, read the book.
If you need help bringing intuitive eating to life, as most of us do, work with a coach, counselor, intuitive eating-focused nutritionist, or take a course. (See this list of resources).
May we all find our way to freedom.
May we all find our way back to our body.
You see now that a diet by any other name is still a diet.
Whether it’s the traditional Weight-Watchers or Jenny Craig or the nouveau Paleo or Whole30 you know that if it asks you to follow rules, if it tells you that your body’s cravings can’t be trusted, if it makes someone else the expert, if it demonizes certain foods or entire macronutrients that it’s a diet. Plus you’re not going to be fooled by misappropriated buzzwords and phrases like “health” and “body love” and “make peace with food.” A spade is a spade and you know it.
You see that yo-yoing in weight is not and has not been a fault of yours but an inherent side-effect of dieting.
When a human being is threatened with starvation over and over again as they are when dieting the body acts in the interest of self-preservation and decreases metabolism. This is the brilliance of our bodies, they want us to live. This the problem with restriction. This is the “planned obsolescence” or built in expiration date of diets. It’s diets that don’t work but people blame themselves for not sticking to it, for not having the willpower, for eating sugar or bread…when all all along it was the diet itself that was set up to cause weight-gain. You see this now. You’re not playing a rigged game anymore.
You see now that you’d rather be happy than weigh any specific amount.
Most often when we’re chasing weight-loss we’re really chasing what we think weight loss will give us: happiness, love, desirability, etc. Most often when we’re restricting our food we’re chasing order in our life, a sense of control, or a decrease in our anxiety. But now, you realize that people have all the things we’re promised weight-loss will give us without the pursuit of a different body. Now you realize you can have those things too. Now you just want to be free and happy.
You’re not holding out hope anymore for a miracle, quick-fix, lose-weight pill, plan, or program.
You’ve tried enough to know that the next diet will not have different results from the last one, or the last ten. You also know that the path from chronic dieter to normal eater won’t happen overnight or in six weeks. That speedy pace is only ever sold by industries that care more about profits that results or your well being. You now know that being the tortoise is a better bet than being the hare. Slow and steady wins the race.
You see now that weighing less, if it means you have to starve and torture yourself, isn’t worth it.
Priorities change. As we live, we learn. It can take a while but eventually, if we’re lucky, where we find meaning and fulfillment becomes clear and it turns out that’s it’s never found in how we look or what we weigh or how “perfect” of an eater we are. Meaning is found in relationships, in creative expression, in service, in play, in nature, in enjoying our bodies, and in loving one another. It’s not found in a pants size. The cost is just too high for you to continue to inflict harm on yourself in the name of calories or points or carbs or pounds or inches.
You have just enough faith that you can relearn how to be a normal eater even if that scares you.
You may not know how. You might crave support. But you have faith, however faint, that you can be free. Others that you respect and trust have gone before you. Somewhere inside is a voice whispering “We’re done. So done. Never again. So what’s next?”
If you are truly done with dieting and want support for this next stage consider applying to be a part of Feast. It’s community, mentoring, and support tailor made for when you’re D-O-N-E.
In the early months of my anorexia the praise I received about my appearance and weight loss served as fuel for a dangerous fire.
“You look great!”
“What are you doing? You look awesome.”
“I wish I had your willpower.”
“Wow, you have a great body.”
Friends, strangers, and even my parents, in the early days, doled out praise for what appeared to be a newly discovered commitment to health and the smaller pants I could fit into.
Approval was like a drug. It felt good, really good, when it started and it served as a motivation later on. When I didn’t want to go to the gym or I wanted to eat something beyond my ultra restricted diet all I did was think about what people would say if I gained weight and that was enough to keep me in line.
In a lot of ways I was addicted to praise. The high I got from others celebrating my physical form (and how it conformed) was palpable. The panic I felt when (I projected that) others judged my body negatively was crushing.
- Dependence on, or addiction to praise – causing us to do only those things that are likely to get us gold stars and others’ approval
- Avoidance of praise – not wanting to stand out from the crowd – even for positive reasons, which causes us to self-sabotage, to not do our best work
- Fear of criticism – which causes us to not innovate, share controversial ideas, pursue interests where we’ll be fumbling beginners or fail along the way, or do anything that makes us visible enough to be criticized!
She makes the astute suggestion to “always look at feedback as giving you information about the person or people giving the feedback, rather than information about yourself.”
Tara’s writings explores this topic mostly in the context of our careers and I want to take it further and apply it to praise and criticism of our bodies and food choices.
And unhooking in this realm is not an easy thing to do because we all want to belong. We all want approval. When we are praised it feels great. When we are judged or rejected it can feel devastating.
And yet, living at the mercy of the approval of others, striving to conform in our appearance or diets to what others or “society” deems good is the definition of disempowerment.
Being able to live our lives and make basic choices like what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat without factoring in what other people will think is essential if we are to feel free and unmasked—if we are to stay connected to the immense wisdom of our bodies.
Feeding ourselves is one of the most basic acts of autonomy. No one else should have a say in what we put into our bodies and yet for too many women, with each bite, comes a cacophony of judgemental voices—some real, some projected.
This happens when we get dressed too. Our minds run off with thoughts of “Does this make me look fat?” “Does this show my belly/thighs/arms/butt, etc?” “Will so and so think I’ve gained weight?” “Will they think I’ve given up?” Too often we sit on the side lines, skip the party, or spend more than we can afford on clothing just to mitigate the judgement we fear others will have of how we look.
But, as Tara so eloquently explains “the goal…is not to become impervious to praise and criticism. That would be impossible. It would also be inhuman, and would force us to deny an important part of ourselves….The part of us that wants others to receive us with appreciation, with enthusiasm – the part that wants to be loved by those around us? I think that’s a very tender, real, part of us, a part to honor too. The point is not to become disconnected from feedback, to have such a thick skin that we can’t feel it or hear it, but rather, to become “unhooked” by it, to not be run by it. The point is to be run by our own wisdom…The goal is to not have others’ ideas about us distract us, silence us, or take us on an emotional roller coaster.”
I agree. In the end it comes down to what we each, as individuals, decide is important in a meaningful life. Unhooking from praise and criticism when it comes to our bodies and our food choices is a life long practice. Each of us has an ego that is ready and willing to lure us back to that to the roller coaster. Getting hooked isn’t a failure.
So what does it look like when we’re unhooked from body praise and criticism?
It looks like this:
- Eating what we want, not more or less based on what other people are eating or who we are eating with, or what social function we have coming up on our calendar.
- Allowing photos of us to be taken and seen, knowing that a moment captured in 2-D doesn’t define us or tell our whole story.
- Not hiding in the ways we dress or hiding what we are choosing to eat.
- Letting someone else’s comments about our appearance be about them.
- Dressing and adorning ourselves for ourselves, with pride, and the body we have today.
- Observing the hurt or fear that comes from criticism and looking inward to where we may be holding self-judgement. After all, it’s much harder to be hurt by criticism we don’t agree with.
- Doing our best to practice non-judgement when it comes to other people’s eating and appearance.
- Sometimes consciously giving up the SHORT-TERM high we know we’d get if we went on a crash diet. We unhook when we choose long-term, internally-based sustainable happiness instead of short-term, external hits of power. This happens in small moments.
- When necessary, reminding other people that our body, appearance, and food choices are entirely our own domain—no outside contributions needed or welcome.
Unhooking is a practice, but remember, what I think of you, or she thinks of you, or he thinks of you, or your inner critic thinks of you doesn’t much matter. You are in charge. Your body is yours. Your reasons behind your food choices are personal and multifaceted and no one’s business.
Go to the party. Take the photograph. Put on whatever size clothing fits your body today and feels comfortable. Eat what you want, in public, in front of people who are still entranced by diet culture.
Have no shame for struggling, getting hooked, bumbling toward finding your way, or being a human who feels deeply—this stuff isn’t easy.
Ultimately though, when you can, remember that what other people think about your body and food choices only has as much power as you give it.